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Not that Different: An “Ordinary Life” at Home in North Africa

By sisters, Sarah and Candice (staff writer) Names changed or last names omitted for security in online version of this article

When we think of RMM workers living overseas, we picture a foreign culture, with a difficult language, strange food, and a religion that we don’t understand. For kids like Charis (11), Joy (9), and David (6), who moved to North Africa as young children (David was born there!), it’s what they’ve always known. Speaking with the children, via Skype, I was struck again by the normalcy of life for them. Charis had been making a pumpkin pie when I called and talked to me while wearing her apron. All the kids ran to bring me samples of their Arabic and French writing and pictures they had drawn. In the background was a steady stream of canary chirps and the shouts of their twin toddler brothers, Conrad and Philip. As we chatted, I got the sense that the kids think about living in North Africa not as “another culture” but simply “home.” For them, America is the second culture which they visit and adjust to as needed. In their little town, they lead a life that feels ordinary—getting up and going to school every day, sometimes arguing with their siblings, having playdates and making bracelets with friends, etc. Feel free to eavesdrop as their parents and I talk to them about life as it is right now...

What are your favorite things about living in North Africa?

David: My favorite things are making forts in the living room out of pillows and playing on my bicycle.

Joy: I like different places. I like a town where we visit sometimes because it has trees and green grass, and I like the town where we live because it has a bunch of hills and sunsets. I like the food—like couscous and tagine [a dish eaten by dipping bread in a common bowl] and also beets and peas.

I like the holiday Ashorah [10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar]. All the kids are happy because they get stuff from their parents.

Charis: Friends, fresh bread, milawi [crispy flat bread served warm with tea in the afternoons].

What are your least favorite things about living there?

Joy: I don’t like the Eid at all because I don’t like to see sheep butchered. [The Eid Aladha is the celebration that happens about 60 days after the end of Ramadan. Each head of household slaughters a sheep, remembering the story of Abraham and his son].

David: How our neighbor boy teaches the other boys how to do bad things.

Charis: We don’t get vacation for Christmas and Thanksgiving because the culture is Muslim and they don’t celebrate it.

Who are your friends and what language do they speak? What religion are they? How do you see them practicing their religion?

Joy: My friends are the kids in my class. They speak Arabic and French and a little bit of English. All of them follow Allah and are Muslims. At our old school, instead of sports, the boys said their prayers and the girls did their prayers—in back which was no fair.

What is a Third Culture Kid??

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.

– Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken)

David: They speak Arabic. They chant the Quran.

Charis: They (speak region-specific) Arabic, French, classical Arabic and a little English. They are Muslims. They kiss the Quran whenever it falls on the ground.

(Editor’s note: The children listed all of their friends by name. For security reasons, we can’t include them here. Sarah says that names are very important and it’s very important for the children to be able to name each child in their class by first and last name.)

Is it hard to communicate with your friends in other languages sometimes? What does that feel like?

Joy: No, it’s not a problem, but one time I tried to tell them that Jesus died on the cross for them and they didn’t talk to me much for like a week or so after that. It feels bad.

David: One time I accidentally talked in English and they didn’t understand me. It made me feel silly.

Charis: No, it’s not hard to communicate with my friends.

Was it hard to learn to speak and read in Arabic and French? What are your favorite words or phrases?

Joy: I don’t remember how I learned. I like to say cacahuètes, which means peanuts, and bastingage, which means a post for tying up a ship. I like the song Daba Hellazoune which is the story of a snail carrying its home on its back. I like the word L’ami, which means friend.

David: Yeah, it’s sort of hard. I used to know French but I forgot it, but I know Arabic really well. I like the word “Asahabi” which means “my friend.”

Charis: I don’t remember learning (the local) Arabic or French. It’s sometimes just a little hard to learn classical Arabic.

What can you do in North Africa that you can't do in the U.S.?

Joy: Go to the hammam [public bath; most neighborhoods have a public bath with different hours for men and women].

Charis: Walk to school and climb a mountain in our neighborhood.

What or who do you miss the most from America?

Joy: My grandparents and my friends. I miss the teepee and the playground at my granddaddy’s house. I miss the ol’ barn where my other grandparents live.

David: Grandma and Ty.

Charis: Everybody.

Can you remember the best day you had recently? What did you do?

Joy: The day that M. A.*and her brother first came over was the best day. We played in the playhouse a bunch and then we ate figs and plums right off the trees. And then we played with our doll, Nellie. My friend looked so happy skipping down the road when they left our house but their mother was afraid they would fall.

Returning home to Thailand

For Claire (11), Eliza (9), and Silas (6), after living in Thailand almost seven years, consider it one of their homes. They have spent the last year and a half in Columbus, Ohio, attending city schools and learning a lot about their identity as Americans, as well as spending time with family in the States. While they now understand a lot more about where they originally come from, all three kids still feel that “home” is in Thailand. They are looking forward to settling back in Bangkok in the summer of 2015. While they are looking forward to the move, they will face challenges in adjusting back to Thai culture and language. It’s going to take effort and energy to adapt and learn and make friends again. Please pray for them as they say difficult good-byes and pray that they can adapt and thrive, with God’s help, back in Thailand. Pray that their parents, Tom and Candice, will make wise decisions about schooling and that Claire, Eliza, and Silas can make many great, new friendships with Thai kids. The kids ask for prayers for “nice teachers” and “that Thailand won’t seem too different.” Pray for peace in their hearts in the time of transition and upheaval that is coming this spring.

David: Finishing school was a good day. I like getting all the books back that I worked on so that I could see what I did.

Charis: We went to the beach and went swimming and had a picnic.

Can you remember the worst day you had recently? How did it make you feel?

Joy: When my teacher said not to say that again when I told the kids in my class that Jesus died on the cross. It made me feel mad.

Do you have any pets?

Joy: We have four turtles and four canaries. Lola is the turtle and the canaries are May, Sebastian, and Carver. The rest don’t have names.

What is your house like?

Joy: Our bedroom is small and I don’t like sharing a room. We have a living room, a kitchen, three bedrooms and a bathroom. It’s nice.

David: We have a really nice living room that has lots of pillows to play in. You can make a big pile and jump in them, make a fort or make a wall with them. We have a lot of books in our house.

Charis: It’s the bottom floor of a villa [a big house]. Joy and I share a room and the boys share a room.

Do you have a garden?

Joy: One that we share with our neighbors.

David: Yes, we can dig in it, but we have to cover up the holes because it’s not our garden.

Charis: We have fruit trees—cherry, pears, figs, pomegranates, plums—and a playhouse in the garden area behind our house.

What is school like?

Joy: Arabic is hard and the rest is mostly going smoothly. English is so easy—it’s my favorite. Math and French are also my favorites.

David: It’s a little bit boring because sometimes we are sitting around and waiting until the bell rings because my teacher doesn’t have anything else to do. My favorite subjects are English and Arabic.

Charis: There are 16 kids in my class and I have four teachers. I study Arabic in the morning and I study French in the afternoon. We study English for 2.5 hours each week and it’s super boring. We have 15 minutes of recess in the morning, a 2.5 hour break for lunch, and then 15 minutes of recess in the afternoon. I like to jump rope during recess. Class starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. We go to tutoring for Arabic three times a week. Math and French are my favorite subjects.

Do you ever feel isolated or treated differently?

Joy: Yes, they think their grades are better than mine just because I don’t study the Quran. I don’t like it because my grades are just as good as theirs, but they don’t care about the individual subject grades, but only about the total.

David: No, I don’t feel different.

Charis: I feel different because I don’t study the Quran.

Do you go to church? What’s that like?

Joy: Yes, once a month. I like playing with the friends I have there.

David: Yes, I like Sunday school. It’s a little bit fun.

Charis: We go to church once a month in a big city.

Most of the people in your country are Muslim. What do you know about Islam?

Joy: They don’t eat pork. They do prayers five times a day at the mosque. Every time they say their prayers they say Allah Ou Akhbar, which means God is the greatest.

Overseas for the First Time

Robbie *(2) and Anna* (infant) (children of Raleigh*(brother to Candice and Sarah) and Opal*, workers in North Africa)

Opal and Raleigh ask for prayers...

Please pray for Robbie to be strong enough—and willing—to walk before our family's assignment begins in July 2015.

Pray for Robbie and Anna to have patient endurance for long car rides to trainings, speaking engagements, and to visit family.

Please pray for Anna and Robbie to become friends early in their lives and to support each other.

Charis: They have to butcher sheep on the Eid. They think that Mohammad is a prophet. They have to fast a month every year and they have to go on the Haj [pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia]. They have to go to the mosque five times a day to pray.

What do Muslims think of Jesus? Do you meet many people that know Jesus?

Joy: All of them know about him, but just believe that he is prophet. Yes, there are a few believers.

David: Nobody thinks about Jesus. Not really.

Charis: They think he is a prophet and they don’t believe he died.

How do you pray for your Muslim friends?

Joy: I pray that everyone would become Christians so that when Jesus comes back everyone will be Christians.

David: That they would believe in Jesus.

Charis: That I could have chances to share with them.

Why are you in the country that you live in?

Joy: It wasn’t my decision and my parents moved here when I was one year old. They thought that God wanted them to do that.

David: Because I like it. Because my family wants to live here.

Charis: To tell people about Jesus.

Are there ways that you help your family with their ministry?

Joy: I talk to my friends about God at school. I study as well as I can in school and do my best.

David: I tell kids about Jesus, but they don’t want to believe it. One time I told them that if you’re ever sick Jesus can heal them, but not Mohammed. When I tell them that they say, “Be quiet, that’s not even true. Only Mohammed can save us.”

Charis: I try to be a friend to the girls at school.

What do you want to do when you grow up? Would you like to live overseas?

Joy: I want to be an English teacher. Yes, I would like to live in North Africa.

David: I haven’t decided yet. I would like to live in China because the food is good. I would like to live in the United States because there is no glass [broken on the ground] like in North Africa.

Charis: I want to be a teacher. Yes, I would like to live in another country.

What are good ways that we can pray for your family?

Joy: That we could help more people be believers. That Charis’s Arabic teacher would stop speaking fast so Charis can understand her better. That David would have a good time at school. That Conrad and Philip would keep on growing healthy. That our whole family wouldn’t get sick for a while.

David: That I wouldn’t have bad dreams.

Joy: That the kids in my class, the director, and my teachers would become Christians.

Sarah, worker and mother to Charis, David, and Joy (as well as Philip and Conrad who are a little too young for the interview!) shared a few prayer requests for her children. She said, “One thing I think is cool about the kids’ experience is that they can relate to people across spectrums of age and culture. For example, David right now is learning a lot of new Arabic words and using what he knows. When we came home in a taxi one night recently, he was interacting with the driver, pointing out things outside the window and chatting. It’s good to see them being able to connect like that. For David, you can pray for positive peer influence. Many little boys are used to getting away with a lot and are not very respectful. We’re praying for a good, positive friendship for him. Pray that the kids would grow deeper in their understanding of Jesus’s love for them and that as they are in the school setting, they would know God’s presence and protection.”

Tools for Transition

In October, the children (going in the field this year) met together in Columbus, Ohio for a training called “Kid’s CALIBRATE.” Jeanette Hunt (Third Culture Kid Coach at Eastern Mennonite Missions) and Lydia Yoder (adult TCK, daughter of current RMM workers, John and Cecelia) gave input for the kids. Jeanette taught on themes like change, transitions, and good-byes. Lydia supplemented the lessons with crafts and games as well as sharing her experiences as a TCK with the kids and the adults. Meanwhile the adults met to ask questions, encourage each other, and discuss topics related to raising kids in another culture.

As you pray for transitioning kids, keep in mind the qualities that they will need to develop in order to be good cross-cultural explorers and learners. This is the “toolbox” they were given during their training weekend:

Stuffed lamb - Choose sacred objects; the special things to take along.
Camera - Take pictures to help remember people and places.
Bottle of water - Tears and sadness over leaving. It’s okay to cry.
Rubber bands - Be flexible!
Rocket - Have a sense of adventure. Just jump in and try it!
Binoculars - Observe new things. Listen and ask questions.
Notebook - Journal and draw to help process your feelings.
Bible - Keep family traditions to bring stability. Stay connected to Jesus.
Lips (from Mr. Potato Head) - Talk about your feelings with your family.

Special thanks to Jeanette Hunt for sharing this toolbox with us.